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Can This Be Man?

A Music Drama for Violin and Orchestra
Program notes by Frank Proto

In 1997, while both members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Alexander Kerr and I began talking about collaborating on a new violin concerto. We explored various stylistic possibilities always looking for something different or unusual that would incorporate the orchestra in a meaningful way but still allow the soloist to shine. At first I wanted to do an abstract work, since three of my most recent pieces – Ghost In Machine – an American Music Drama for Vocalist, Narrator and Orchestra, Afro-American Fragments after Langston Hughes and Four Scenes after Picasso for Double Bass and Orchestra – were program-based works. During our discussions we contacted David Stahl, Music Director of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, to see if he would be interested in conducting the premiere. He was receptive to the idea and suggested that we might consider some sort of Holocaust Memorial theme. The idea of a Holocaust piece was intriguing and I decided to learn more about one of humanity’s most horrendous episodes.

I wasn’t sure how I wanted to begin work on the piece but eventually I resolved that I wouldn’t write a note of music before I did some research into my subject matter. I decided to visit the recently opened Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Anyone who has made even a short, day-long walk through the exhibits will know the feelings of despair and devastation that quickly take hold as you proceed. Besides the main – extremely graphic – exhibit, the Museum has an abundant library and research center. It was here that I discovered that the Holocaust is, if anything, well documented. Ironically, much of the documentation was provided by the Nazis themselves. There is so much material to draw from – including photographs, sound recordings and film as well as thousands of printed volumes (from short personal memoirs to full-length encyclopedias) – that one can spend a life-time scrutinizing the subject and still not come to know many of the answers to some of humankind’s most disturbing questions.

Sitting in the library I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to start. For a day I just browsed the shelves and computer files. On the second day I selected some material to read. The first book that caught my eye was a small volume by Ingo Müller, Hitler’s Justice: The Courts of the Third Reich, which describes, how Third Reich lawyers conceived Nazi Law: "They maintain that the Nazi State is a legal state but the conception of law and justice under which it lives is National Socialist both in form and content. This is another way of saying that the law is simply the expression of the Fuehrer’s will; and thus, with masterly hypocrisy, the Third Reich is defined as Adolf Hitler’s Legal State." Müller goes on to describe how the law was artfully applied to various groups and individuals, quoting German professors, lawyers, judges and political figures: "A professional lawyer can only be a man who has pondered over Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf." (Prof. Carl Schmidt, Councillor of State, addressing lawyers in Berlin, October 7, 1935); "Previously one spoke of justice and injustice, but now a judge before reaching a decision must ask himself: What would the Fuehrer say to this?" (Dr. Frank, Frankfurter Zeitung, October 29, 1935).

I read a short volume by Andre Deutsch, Pogrom 10 November 1938, which describes how a young Polish Jew, Herschel Grünspan, shot a minor German official in Paris on November 7, 1938, because a few days earlier his parents had been deported to Zbonszyn on the German-Polish border. It was the excuse the Germans were looking for to organize a vicious pogrom a few days later, making Jewish life impossible from that day onward. Synagogues in the Reich were burnt down or demolished while Jewish-owned businesses were attacked and over 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the concentration camps of Dachau, Buchenwald or Sachsenhausen. These events are what have become to be known as Kristallnach ("Night of the Broken Glass"). I didn’t realize it at the time but before I left the museum that day, I had both the subject matter and titles of the two inner movements of the Concerto – Rechtsstaat (Legal State) and 10 November, 1938.

I did extensive reading over the next few months. In fact, the more I read the more I wanted to learn. I discovered Erik Levi’s Music in the Third Reich, an especially interesting book for someone like myself, whose life revolves around the arts. It reports on how the state sought to control musical life through the Ministry of Propaganda. Levi deals with Anti-Semitism in the nation’s orchestras and opera companies, the pressures put on composers to adhere to the reactionary musical attitudes of the day and the Nazi purge of modernist repertoire. Some of the anecdotes, in another context, might be considered humorous, given the lengths officials such as Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg and Karl Blessinger went to purge the arts of all "Jewishness." Felix Mendelssohn was a particular problem for the Nazis. Because of his Jewish birth they were determined to eradicate his works from the repertoire, but this was no easy task since Mendelssohn’s music was enormously popular. A massive project to find an acceptable Aryan alternative to the incidental music to Midsummer Night’s Dream resulted in "as many as 44 different scores being used between 1933 and 1944 for German productions of Shakespeare’s play." Critics and musicologists of the day, despite being under the same pressures as other writers to adhere to the party line, usually panned the new scores. But because of the official policy of the Third Reich, the critics had to take care not to heap any praise upon or countenance any further performances of Mendelssohn’s music.

Of all the books that I read on the subject of the Holocaust, the one that made the strongest impression on me was Primo Levi’s If this is a Man. In fact, the title of the Concerto – Can This Be Man – was inspired by it. Levi’s classic book is necessary reading for all of us. It is the account of his year spent at the Buna labor camp at Monowitz near Auschwitz. Written more as a personal memoir than a history, If this is a Man documents the Nazi attempts to strip every ounce of dignity and humanity from its captives. Levi, an Italian Jew, wrote his book shortly after the end of the War but it wasn’t until 1958 he found a publisher willing to do a large printing and promote the book widely. Encouraged by its belated success, he wrote a sequel, The Truce, the story of his long journey home after his camp was liberated. Levi was deported along with 650 of his countrymen in December of 1943. Twenty-two months later three returned home.

Can This Be Man is scored for an orchestra of 3 flutes (all doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, percussion, harp and strings in addition to the solo violin. The stage setup is unconventional. The orchestra is divided into two large groups, left and right, with each group divided into three smaller ensembles. Four percussionists flank the orchestra both front and rear. The soloist moves from the right to the left of the conductor depending on how he is interacting with the orchestra.

The work is divided into four movements. The first, Es Brent (It Burns), is inspired by the Yiddish folk poet Mordekhai Gebirtig’s Dos Shtetl Brent (The Little Town’s Afire), written one year before the outbreak of World War II. Composed in 1938 as a reaction to a series of vicious attacks against Polish Jews that culminated in a pogrom in the town of Przytik in central Poland, it anticipates the tragic events that were to follow. Shtetl, a diminutive of shtot, the Yiddish word for "small town" meant more than that to Polish Jews. It signified a particular way of life that focused on family and synagogue. Gebirtig seemed to forecast the demise of the Shtetl and his fears were soon to be realized with the coming Nazi occupation.

Echoes of the tune Es Brent are heard throughout the movement, at times quietly in the far distance (off stage) and at other times screaming with various instrumental combinations. Two stanzas of the poem are also heard, accompanied by a single note moving eerily within the orchestra. The movement’s unsettling ambiance, maintained by a continuous moving in and out of tempo, is offset for a short time with the initial appearance of the English horn, but the disturbing atmosphere returns with the entrance of the bass clarinet, culminating with a both visually and aurally powerful ending.

The second movement Rechtsstatt (Legal State) brings the soloist’s two instrumental antagonists into a more prominent roll. The English horn and bass clarinet can both be seen as adversaries. The bass clarinet’s role seems to be obvious. But what of the English horn? A true friend, or a devious enemy? Perhaps a clue might be found when both re-appear in the third movement 10 November, 1938.

The bloody pogrom Kristallnacht ("Crystal Night" or "Night of the Broken Glass") was conducted throughout Germany and Austria on November 9 and 10, 1938. The third movement which begins with an echo of the beginning of the first movement is, with the exception of a relatively subdued center section, constantly aggressive with a particularly brutal ending.

The final movement, Can This Be Man: Treblinka, is a setting of a tune, the origin of which is unknown. The simple beauty of the song belies the horror of its namesake. Known to some as the "hell of hells" Treblinka, located about 40 miles from Warsaw, was converted from a prison to a death camp in early 1942. The camp operated between May 1942 and August 1943, slaughtering as many as ten thousand Jews a day.

There, outside the town,
They gather Jews from near and far,
With blows and curses they are massed
In crowded cattle cars.
And there one hears a scream of pain
As a child cries to its mother,
"I’m afraid here on this wagon train,
I want to stay with you together."

"Go faster! Hurry! Faster!"
At us the Jewish police yell.
"You’ll be cared for and well fed,
To each a whole loaf of bread."
And so have we all been deceived
That we’d all have some bread to eat...
And none of us really believed
In Treblinka death we’d meet.

Come back, come back, my dearest mamenyu,
Come back, oh please come back to me.
Come back, come back, my dearest mamenyu.
Why can’t it be the way it used to be?

Treblinka there–
Graveyard of Jews from everywhere.
Whoever is sent remains there
Forever, ever there.
All who come there–
Youngsters, elders, fathers, mothers,
All my dearest sisters, brothers–
And there they meet their death.

Can This Be Man is dedicated to those who lost their lives in the death camps during the Holocaust. It is also dedicated to those who survived to tell the rest of us. The premiere performance took place on December 5, 1998 in Charleston, South Carolina. The Charleston Symphony Orchestra was conducted by David Stahl. The soloist was Alexander Kerr.

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Concerto for Cello and Orchestra

Program note by Marshall Burlingame

The Concerto for Cello owes its distinctive character to rhythmic and harmonic elements suggestive of Eastern music, whose special percussion sounds also suggest, in a way, a Latin flavor. Proto's score calls for tablas (Indian drums) or Congas (Latin drums). This kind of mixture, hinting of several ethnic musical cultures, is typical of current trends in American Jazz. The Concerto is realized in a wholly symphonic manner, however, so that it has a special "international-ethnic" flavor, mixed with 20th century sounds gleaned from the concert hall. The composer draws our attention to two essential facts about this work: first, it is a concerto for soloist and orchestra... the cello is certainly the protagonist, but without the context of the orchestra, the cello part would not have its true solo significance (In fact, Proto remarks that he doubts whether a piano reduction could be made of the orchestra part, since color and texture are essential components in the shape of the piece); the other major aspect of the piece is the virtuosity of the cello part. The expressive capabilities of the instrument are fully exploited in this exceedingly difficult work, though at no time is the soloist required to do anything unidiomatic to the nature of the instrument. The cello is aided by amplification throughout the Concerto to give it a solo presence able to compete with the multi-colored orchestra.

In the first movement, the cellist is asked to adopt various stylistic effects in bowing, fingering and sound that lend themselves to the general sense of Eastern musical expression. The slow introduction contains the musical germs from which the entire Concerto takes shape. Part of this material is played by the flute, then taken up by the solo cello. Two principal parts of this material are:


These elements can be found in many guises throughout the Concerto, often so transformed or fragmented that the ear does not detect them. Nearly all the piece, however, is derived from them. This first movement has a very general sonata form in that it consists of a statement of material, two large sections using that material, and a kind of restatement followed by a brief coda.

The second movement makes use of a specially prepared tape produced on a synthesizer. The tape includes cello solos recorded by Mr. (Peter) Wiley and carefully selected, precisely altered percussion and cello sounds. (the nine minutes of tape took Mr. Proto six weeks to complete.) The tape sneaks in with percussion effects shortly after the beginning of the movement. Soon the cellist is playing a duet with his reverberated solos on the tape. The movement is a free fantasia of hauntingly beautiful effects with a mixture of live solo cello, live tutti cellos, taped solo cello and taped, altered cello sounds. In this movement, as contrast to the tape, the solo cello plays with completely natural expression, as in a Brahms sonata.

The third movement's rhythmic character, harmonic color and orchestration have their roots in the jazz idiom, although the expression is, again, thoroughly symphonic. A hint of the movement's personality is given in the fourth measure of the slow introduction, when the brass suddenly play a fanfare-like figure with a jazz rhythm for one measure, marked "twice as fast." After a solo cello monologue the movement takes off. The fast main part of the movement features the intense solo line, with its great rhythmic vitality, against a subtle, dissonant orchestral background with resonant brass interjections. Two solo drummers are called for, one on bongos and one on drum set. Toward the end of the movement, the pace slackens until the tempo of the Concerto's introduction is reached, and the basic musical material recurs in its original state, giving the work a sense of cyclical form. The cello ends this brief reflection with its brilliant descending run from the first movement introduction, which this time propels the music back to the fast third movement tempo, and the Concerto is brought to its conclusion.

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Three Pieces for Percussion and Orchestra

Program note by Clifford Barnes

Composers who are practicing performers have special insights not always granted to other composers. With extensive experience in jazz as well as classical music, Frank Proto describes "free improvisation" perceptively when he writes at the beginning of his third Piece for Percussion and Orchestra - "depending on inspiration and perspiration!"

Proto's compositions succeed in blending jazz with classical music as Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra audiences will know from his previous works premiered here, especially the Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra (1970), Concerto in One Movement for Violin, Double Bass and Orchestra (1972) and Concerto for Baritone Saxophone and Orchestra (1973).

On the list of premiums offered during the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra fund raising Marathon 2 was a new work by Frank Proto to feature any member of the Orchestra chosen by the premium's purchaser. Marion Rawson had already had Mr. Proto photograph her home as a premium of the 1974 Marathon; this time she engaged him to write a composition featuring the percussion section. This new work calls for four players: the first on timpani, the others on a variety of instruments capable of definite and indefinite pitches.

The first piece opens with various instruments being hit by mallets, as well as with piano, harp and strings. The meter shifts between duple and triple, but a syncopated rhythm figure ties the piece together. A melodic passage arrives relatively late; violins sing out a long theme and the timpani has an important solo. The effect is heightened by string harmonics, and the first piece moves without pause into the second.

Wind instruments provide strong melodic interest, joined by harp and piano. After a short, slow introduction the jazz drum set enters with six tom toms, snare drum, bass drum, hi hat and cymbals. The fast opening section contrasts with one slightly slower, adding the color of vibes and marimba, plus a "rock" beat. The texture thins out and the dynamic level drops until a piano arpeggio introduces an oboe solo. The harp has a "wild glissando," followed by vibes played by drawing a string-bass bow across the edge of one of the bars. This "cadenza" can be improvised, depending on the mood of the performer, until the mallets signal the return to the slow introduction and fast section of the movement.

Another new sound opens the third piece as the trombone and trumpet players produce a "continuous wavering sound." Harp and piano add atmospheric sounds along with intricate percussion rhythms, leading to free improvisation as before. Horns, trumpets, the first trombone and even the tuba have solos, broken by a timpani cadenza.

Low strings return to the sound texture, along with low woodwinds, all moving at a brisk pace. Jazz elements increase until the "big band" style is evident. The symphonic orchestra returns to provide accompaniment for improvised solos by bongos and the drum set in alternation. Rhythmic interest builds to a frenzy. One slow measure intervenes, then five fast measures complete the furious pace.

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